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Ignore the critics, free schools drive up standards

As pupil numbers rise, the admission process becomes stressful for all. That's when a free school can make a real difference

Mark Lehain is to step down from his role at the New Schools Network

As pupil numbers rise, the admission process becomes stressful for all. That's when a free school can make a real difference

This week featured the deadline for families of Year 6 pupils to apply for a secondary school place for September next year. The autumn term is always a busy one for these families. It’s a chance to learn more about your local schools and find out about their different philosophies to help find the perfect match.

But the truth is that it can also be a nerve-wracking time for all involved. The prospect of not getting into the preferred school, of missing out on what could be the only high-performing institution in the area, is a chilling thought for parents and students alike. 

As a parent myself I completely understand this concern. This is why I have always been so invested in helping create great new schools across the country because no one should have to worry about where they’ll be going to school. I want all families to have the chance to choose from a wide range of schools to help match their child’s need with the right learning environment.

As a parent, school founder, and most recently interim director of the New Schools Network, I will always be a passionate advocate of the free schools policy. I know full well how this programme has helped to increase the choices available to families and driven school improvement in areas that desperately need them. 

Ignore the critics; free schools are making an enormous difference to education. They are more likely to be rated "outstanding" by Ofsted than other state schools, and for the second year in a row topped the GCSE results tables. This success is matched by results from key stages 1 and 5, where free schools once again came out as a resounding success.

We’ve also had a look through the most recent secondary school application data to get a sense of what’s going on across the country. The initial analysis showed that free schools are generally oversubscribed, with more people choosing them as their first choice than the schools have places available. This is a fantastic sign of the popularity of the policy and shows that people really value these schools.

Looking at the data in more detail, we also saw that areas with the least choice of school places are more likely to underperform. With no external stimulus driving improvement, parents are all-too-often left with the option of one particular school, regardless of whether or not it’s the right one for their child. 

This is precisely where a new school could make a real difference, particularly in areas where the number of pupils is only going to increase. While some schools will welcome a further influx of pupils, for those schools that are already underperforming this will just place them under even greater pressure. 

The latest wave of free schools is tackling this issue head-on. They are going to be targeted in areas of most need – offering families in these areas the chance to access a great new school if parental choices are limited and pupil outcomes low. Applicants are being asked to make a compelling case that the new school will fulfil a need for places and help raise standards in a pocket of low standards. We need to work towards a system where all families have access to great local schools, and the first step is to prioritise those areas which are most in need.

The more free schools that we work to support across the country, the more confident we can be that people won’t worry when they send off their preferences. I know from personal experience that it’s a nervous time waiting to hear where your child is going to go to school, but parents shouldn’t be worried about missing out on the only viable choice.

This should be the time of year where families celebrate the exciting future for their children and explore the diverse range of schools on offer, not a time for nerves and worry. Every child deserves the opportunity to go to a great local school – let’s make sure they have that chance. 

Mark Lehain is the founder and former headteacher of Bedford Free School. He is the director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence 

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